While Curiosity was still flying through space, way before it landed on Mars, scientists at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory were busy working with a clone rover back on earth. In a simulation area called the Mars Yard, scientists put the duplicate Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) through a series of experiments to perfect the rover's software and reevaluate its capabilities. The tests answered critical questions, such as: Can it go over that big rock?
Our US brothers over at Gizmodo.com spent some time with the lab rat last winter. It's not the first rover to touch down on the Martian surface, but it's easily the most impressive yet. This is why:
To start off with, Curiosity is physically very big. It's hard to get a sense of scale from renders and animations. It's 9.5 feet long and 8.9 feet wide. Standing next to it, its mast towers over your head. And for a rover, it's heavy—MSL's arm weighs more than the Spirit or Opportunity rovers. Just its arm! Yet thanks to the super-light aerospace metals, Curiosity only weighs 1,982lbs / 899kg (without fuel). That's about 700lbs (317kg) lighter than a new Honda Civic.
Spirit and Opportunity were both awesome rovers that lived well beyond their projected lifetimes. But do you know when they weren't awesome? During the Martian winter. Spirit and Opportunity were both solar-powered, which meant that when there wasn't enough sun to keep them going, they had to hibernate for long periods of time. Curiosity solves this problem with an onboard nuclear reactor. It's projected lifetime is one Martian year (roughly two Earth years), but it could easily exceed that. When it does eventually die, it will likely be because its gears have worn out. Fuel supply will almost certainly not be an issue.
One of Curiosity's key features is that is has a percussive drill that can bore through rock and take samples. The sample enters the end of the drilling arm through a module called a turret. But only particles of a certain size need to be transferred inside for instruments to analyse. So inside the turret, a chimera separates the samples through a series of filters. Particles must be shaken to pass through these filters—to accomplish this, the arm performs a series of maneuvers the engineers lovingly call "Rover Yoga."
The turret also has a camera, a dust-removal tool, a spectrometer, and plenty more. Oh, the drilling arm has no problem swapping in a fresh drill bit when the old one inevitably wears down.
Curiosity doesn't just have a sensor or two, it is a full laboratory on wheels. That's why it's called the MSL: Mars Science Laboratory. Here's just the highlight package. An Alpha-particle X-ray spectrometer irradiates samples with alpha particles and then maps the spectra of X-rays that are re-emitted to determine what elements are present. An X-ray diffraction and X-ray fluorescence instrument called CheMin (for Chemistry and Mineralogy) delves deeper. A tool called SAM (Sample Analysis at Mars) analyses organic matter and gases. A Dynamic Albedo of Neutrons (DAN) measures ice, water (should they find some), and hydrogen near the planet's surface.
It also has meteorological and radiation monitoring. Systems for monitoring its own health. Hi-res stereoscopic cameras all over the place. These are all pretty amazing. But then there's the ChemCam, and that thing is...oh baby...
Curiosity's ChemCam system relies on a laser-induced breakdown spectroscopy (LIBS) system, which blasts a beam from the rover's mast that could slice your arm clean off. That's right, light sabers are real. It's so powerful that it can ablate solid rock from 23 feet away. Once the laser blasts off a chunk of rock, ChemCam uses spectroscopy to determine the makeup of what's inside. That means Curiosity can shear off little bits of rock, scan them, settle on the perfect shard, and then maneuver over to that site to pick up a physical sample.
It went through a landing process called "the seven minutes of terror", in which hundreds upon hundreds of things could have gone wrong, causing catastrophic failure. And somehow, nothing bad happened. It landed safe and sound on the Martian surface. Anything that survives a birthing process like is all kinds of hardcore. Bad ass robot.
Special thanks to Mark Rober, Jessica Culler, Dan Goods, Val Bunnell, and everybody at NASA JPL and NASA Ames for making this happen. The list of thank yous would take up pages, but for giving us access, and for being so generous with their time, we are extremely grateful to everyone there.